Should a Teen Sex Offender Go Free?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Genarlow Wilson in high school yearbook photo.

When he was 17, Genarlow Wilson had been his high school's homecoming king, a football star and the recipient of an academic scholarship. But after being arrested for allowing a 15-year old girl to perform oral sex on him, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, plus lifetime registration as a sex offender. Now he is at the center of a heated legislative battle in the Georgia state senate to rewrite the law under which he was convicted in 2005. Public reaction to his imprisonment led to the passage in 2006 of a so-called "Romeo and Juliet" law, which made most consensual oral sex between minors a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. That law didn't help Wilson, however, since it included language that specifically barred its application to those who had already been convicted. Since then, the young man's supporters have been trying to remedy what they believe to be an unequal application of justice.

So far, the Republican-dominated Georgia senate has not been persuaded to move on a bill that would free Wilson, now 20. Last week, it refused to schedule a hearing on the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat. Jones says he cannot understand why lawmakers are so reluctant to pass a law that would simply put Wilson on the same footing as defendants charged with a similar crime today. "I was quite surprised with the ferocity of the opposition to this legislation," Jones said. Sen. Eric Johnson, the Republican president pro tempore of the Georgia senate, argued that the bill would mean having to reopen more than 1,100 cases where young people were convicted of sexual offenses against younger teens. "Even in Genarlow Wilson's case," Johnson told TIME, "he was indicted, convicted by a jury unanimously and sentenced by a judge, so why should a bunch of politicians second-guess the process just because he has a defense attorney who has hired a publicist and turned this into a media circus?"

The incident Wilson was involved in was inarguably sordid. The New Year's Eve teenage sex party that resulted in his arrest was video-taped, and those six hours of footage were presented to the jury that convicted him. Wilson and five other teen boys were charged with engaging in oral sex with the 15-year-old girl and also charged with the rape of a 17-year-old girl at an Atlanta motel. Four of Wilson's co-defendants accepted plea offers and avoided trial, and a fifth accepted a deal the morning of the trial's opening day. Wilson, however, refused to plead guilty and was tried on the two charges.

After the February 2005 trial, the jury quickly settled on an acquittal on the rape charge because the videotape clearly showed that the girl consented to sex, according to jury forewoman Marie Manigault in an interview with TIME. The tape also clearly showed that the 15-year-old girl involved in the oral sex episode had also consented; but Georgia law at the time made any oral sex with a partner under 16 a felony, regardless of consent. "He didn't do a single thing that was physically aggressive toward either of the girls, and he wasn't vocally intimidating," Manigault said, describing the tape. "This whole thing was a bunch of kids who decided they wanted to try A, B, C and D and it got totally out of control. It was a night of stupidity and not one of them had any idea that what they were doing was illegal." She added: "There should never have been a charge of aggravated child molestation in the first place."

Nevertheless, district attorney David McDade argues that Wilson is a poor cause for those attempting to have the Romeo and Juliet laws apply retroactively. "By any standard of moral conduct," McDade told TIME, "society cannot accept that kind of behavior and tolerate it. He and the others in the room had sex repeatedly with this 17-year-old girl, who was at best semi conscious. Genarlow Wilson is not a hero, and he is not the martyr that he has been made out to be."

Jones agrees Wilson's conduct the night of the party was far from commendable; but he thinks the punishment meted out is too harsh. McDade concedes the extremity of the sentence but says he has offered to support a motion to re-sentence Wilson. The deal would have Wilson accept a conviction to a lesser charge, be sentenced to 15 years in prison, with 10 of those years suspended. Given the two years he has already served, Wilson would already be eligible for parole. But Wilsonís attorney, B.J. Bernstein, said the offer was still unfair since, under the new Romeo and Juliet laws, Wilson would be subject to a maximum of just one year in jail — and not have the stigma of mandatory lifetime registration as sex offenders.

Wilson's mother Juannessa Bennett said her son was willing to fight for his freedom — and to be free of the child molester label — even at the risk of having to serve all 10 years. "I mean what kind of chance would he have in life if he came out of prison as a sex offender for the rest of his life?" said Bennett, a single mother who works as a bartender and raises Wilson's 8-year-old sister. "I don't have the kind of money to set him up in his own business or anything like that. And he would just be so limited in so many ways." She added: "How can you be a sexual predator when you are 17 and the girl is just two years your junior? It's just not right."